IAP VII: Greater Mesopotamia

Reconstruction of its Environment and History


Work Package IV: Environmental Geo-Archaeology


Palaeo-environmental reconstructions provide insight into the patterns of human settlement and resources. WP IV also examines the impact of environmental changes on human activities in the region, particularly in the 12th to 9th centuries BCE.



1. Sea-level changes and human settlement in Lower Khuzestan (RBINS)


The rising sea level buried former possible occupation horizons that hitherto are unknown. Without subsurface investigation, these buried sites remain hidden. However, knowledge of their presence will provide additional information on the (pre-) history of mankind in that particular coastal area. Knowledge of the use of wetlands and marshlands that existed about five to six thousand years ago will contribute to a better assessment of the southern Mesopotamian history and the patterns of human settlement. It is known that buried sites can be detected in the sedimentary record recovered with undisturbed hand auguring on the basis of the presence of artefacts or horizons that are affected by particular post-depositional alteration or sub-aerial weathering. The correlation between the stratigraphic sequences (obtained in WP I) and the occupation horizons will provide a general chronology.

The general chronology can also be inferred from the sea-level history. It is our aim to collect sea-level index points (altitude and age) as much as possible along the stratigraphic transects. The sea-level history will also document whether there have been periods of sea-level stillstands or sea-level falls. Such periods may involve a more widespread lateral human occupation for settlement and for the use of coastal resources (for consumption and as raw material).

Besides, the new sea-level data will provide a better insight into the controversial middle to late Holocene sea-level record of the Persian Gulf. A better understanding of the coastal development on the basis of the stratigraphical framework and sea-level history will allow confirming the suggested climate change in the middle Holocene. During the preceding phase a climate change from wet to arid conditions was concluded on the basis of the sedimentary record. It was observed that the vegetated salt marshes were replaced by sabkhas. The question remains whether this change was caused by a climatic change or simply by a lateral seaward shift of the sedimentary environments.



2. Impact of environmental changes on human activities


Settlement of the Jebleh Plain, Syria (KU Leuven)


Settlement on this fertile coastal plain began to follow a dendritic, or more precisely synaptic pattern from at least the late Early Bronze Age. The region was densely settled during the Middle and Late Bronze Ages according to this model; with the major sites on strategic locations next to the rivers that communicated to the sea at one end and the agricultural heartland to the other, with the urban centre more or less in the middle. Only after the early Iron Age, around the 7th-6th centuries BCE did the major centres begin to relocate to the coast – perhaps in response to the silting up of the rivers resulting from erosion caused by climate change.

In looking for the coastal port facilities of the Middle and Late Bronze Ages one should consider that through time sedimentation has obscured most of the ancient natural bays. These natural anchorages would have sheltered these harbours. We may thus expect that ports were established along the coast at fairly regular intervals, offering traders various places to stop and conduct commercial activities. The effects of this maritime trade can be traced by the circulation of the traded goods.


Tell Tweini, Syria (KU Leuven – Toulouse III)


The alluvial deposits near Tell Tweini provide a unique record of environmental history and food availability estimates covering the Late Bronze Age and the Early Iron Age. The refined pollen-derived reconstruction of the ecosystem suggests an abrupt climate change in the period between 1200 and 850 BCE. This period corresponds with the time frame of the Late Bronze Age collapse and the subsequent Dark Age. Archaeological data show that the first conflagration of Tell Tweini occurred simultaneously with the destruction of the capital city Ugarit (ca. 1194-1175 BCE). Tell Tweini redeveloped shortly after but was destroyed during a second conflagration, which is radiocarbon-dated at circa 2950 cal yr BP. The data provide evidence in support of the drought hypothesis as a triggering factor behind the Late Bronze Age collapse in the Eastern Mediterranean.

We will continue environmental research to reconstruct the ecological system at Tell Tweini with a special focus on the climate change during the transitional period and the impact on social and urban changes.


Tell Kazel, Syria (RMAH – Toulouse III – AUB)


Similar palaeo-ecology and palaeo-climatology work will be undertaken at Tell Kazel in the Syrian Akkar Plain, in order to reconstruct environmental and climate evolutions in the region. The results of this research can subsequently be compared with those from the nearby Jebleh Plain (Tell Tweini).


Textual evidence of climate change: Anatolia from 1250 to 800 BCE (UCLouvain)


Some scholars have already mentioned the possibility of climatic causes for the fall of the Hittite Empire. Nevertheless this research idea has never been thoroughly investigated, neither archaeologically or philologically. As the Anatolian textual corpus has never been looked at from this point of view, it will be thoroughly re-investigated in order to find traces of possible climate changes. An example of such a trace can be a recurring problem of food supply, as a consequence of which the Hittites had to import their grain. This textual research will be combined and checked with results from excavations currently going on in Anatolia.


Textual evidence of climate change: Elam in the first half of the first millennium BCE (UCLouvain)


Parallel with the research on Anatolia, the research on Elam will concentrate on the textual material that could give hints to climate changes. These traces are logically identical to the traces in texts on Anatolia: famine, problems with food supply, etc. The major source for this research will be the Akkadian letters written by Assyrian officials and Babylonian collaborators to the Assyrian court (7th century BCE). They contain essential information on the inland situation in Elam and can thus report on possible consequences of climate changes.





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